2 Thess. 1: 3-43: We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters,[b] and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.
Let me ask you a question: if you had to go from a sinking ship into a lifeboat, and if, after you got in, there was room for only one other person, who would you want it to be? The one whom you love most, and who would most love you, or would it be some sailor and navigator who was best experienced, trained, equipped and most likely to get you out of that situation? We would all probably say, “No! Put my spouse, or my best friend, or my brother, or my child, in the boat with that experienced navigator, and I’ll see how long I can tread water.” But I’m not giving us that option. I know, that’s a terrible dilemma to put anyone in.
I ask that question because today’s reading from 2nd Thessalonians made me think of a movie entitled, The Lifeboat. The movie takes place in World War 2, in a lifeboat, adrift on the Atlantic Ocean. In that lifeboat are a handful of survivors from a passenger and merchant vessel that has been sunk by a German submarine. That submarine was then sunk by a British warship, so there are two German survivors aboard this lifeboat along with American and British passengers.
Among the Americans is someone who would call himself “just a simple working class stiff,” by the name of Kovacs. He was shoveling coal in the ship’s engine room when the torpedo hit. The movie doesn’t go much into his background, but this being just after the Great Depression, he had probably stood in breadlines, ridden the rails and done whatever occasional menial labor he could find during those terrible years just to survive. Maybe that explains his cool and competent nature in the midst of crisis, and his knack for survival. Whatever happens, he’s seen worse, he’s known tight spots and hard times, and he has learned that neither panic, resentment nor despair help anything. That makes him very important among the passengers.
Also in the boat is a high society, high fashion, upper crust woman. You can tell she’s been to the most elite schools from her vocabulary and her command of several languages. You can tell how wealthy and well-connected she is by her ritzy-glitzy cocktail dress, her fur stole, her designer high heels, her pearl necklace and diamond earrings. When she gets into the lifeboat, her first concern is the run in her nylon stockings.
There’s a world war going on, and she even has nylons?
As the days pass and they drift about awaiting rescue, the greatest dangers they face are no longer torpedoes, but themselves and each other. Their differences in personality, ideology and nationality, plus the growing fear, boredom, mutual suspicion, despair, thirst and hunger, are getting on their nerves and setting them against each other. They’ve long eaten up all the crackers, tinned beef or Spam that came with the lifeboat. And they’re starting to look at each other as though they’re thinking, “If I splash a little salt water on you, you might not taste that bad.”
Now why did I just tell you a story about desperate people adrift in a lifeboat? Well, when Paul wrote today’s words to the church at Thessalonica, he wasn’t writing to a congregation the size of ours in a sanctuary like this. Don’t even imagine a sanctuary. There were probably enough people meeting for worship, teaching, prayer and a love feast to fill one or two lifeboats like the one in the movie I just mentioned. And from what we heard in Acts 17: 1-9, they started out as a group just as diverse, and just as much in danger as the people in that World War 2 lifeboat. You could even say that the launch of their new church was a shipwreck. When I was trying to start a church in the Detroit metro area some 20- plus years ago, the plan did not include riots and beatings. The First Church of Thessalonica was hardly out of port before it hit mines and took torpedoes of persecution. But when Paul wrote to the members, they were still alive and afloat.
One of the most common symbols of the church from the first few centuries is a boat. Not a modern 8 story cruise liner with a gym, swimming pool, two theaters and 4 dining rooms, but something more like the lifeboat in the movie I just mentioned. Here’s one from the First or Second Century. Here’s another one.
The boat symbol of the early church comes from the Gospel stories about Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee with his disciples, on the way to do mission, and encountering storms. In those stories, everybody panics and despairs of life, except for Jesus. In one case, he’s peacefully asleep. But over time another image of the church came to fill our heads, like this one, from Durham, England. I confess that it’s my default image of church. Even a small white, wooden chapel is patterned after Cathedrals like that, with the box shape and the steeple towering over everything else around it.
The ancient European Cathedral borrows its shape and symbolism from the ancient European castle, or a fortress. Everything about that symbol says “We own this place…ours is the kingdom, the power, the might and the glory.” Whenever we sing, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” are we actually thinking, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our Church?”
But never in all of church history have we ever really escaped or outgrown the experience of church that is more like this earliest symbol and vision of church, that of the boat, like in this next picture: That’s from the Martyr’s Mirror, and those are our first Anabaptist ancestors worshiping in a boat, the only safe place around, where they can’t be heard by their enemies. Ironically, in this picture you can see the steeple of one of those castle-like cathedrals, the fortress church, in the background.
Most Christians of the world today can identify more with the church as a storm-tossed boat, than with church as a mighty cathedral-like fortress of worldly power, prestige and security. And we, in the supposedly Christian West, need to recapture that seafaring image and understanding of the church as a boat on the storms of life, with a mixed and motley crew on board. Someone has famously said that “the church is a boat ever sailing either through a storm or into the next one.”
The kingdoms, systems and ideologies of this world have the size, appearance and power of a battleship or a luxury liner, but once on board, there’s no denying that sinking feeling sometimes. History is littered with the shipwrecks of empires and institutions. When things go south, human wisdom can organize bucket brigades and rearrange the deck chairs…. like they supposedly did on the Titanic. But the gospel of Jesus Christ comes to us as a call to choose who we will trust and follow: either the captains who say, “Trust us: this ship is too big and too powerful to ever go down,” or the voice that says, “Get in the lifeboat with the One who stills the storms and walks calmly on the waves.”
My shipwreck language may sound slightly like current events. Yes, but when have we not faced storm and danger? Whether your party and your candidates won or lost the elections this week, or even if you didn’t vote, there’s no denying that sinking feeling. Everybody seems to feel something of it, because of how deeply divided we seem to be as a society, and how brutal, disrespectful, and destructive were the campaign language and tactics that no side had a monopoly on, of which no side is innocent. People of all political persuasions have felt sullied, smeared, scared, targeted, disowned and dismissed, before the election as well as after it.
But I still hear the voice of the humble, little lifeboat, from the Captain who walks calmly on the waves, and says, “Peace! Be still.” In the lifeboat of his church he will abide none of the caustic, divisive, destructive talk or conduct that breeds fear and distrust, and which sets people against each other in the cruise liners of worldly empires. His lifeboat faces high waves and howling headwinds. And yet on board are also the few things we need most to survive until we make it to port.
What are those few things we need most in the lifeboat called church? In today’s passage Paul mentions two things that we cannot do without if we are to survive the voyage together, but which are readily at hand: “1)…your faith [in God] is growing more and more, and 2) the love all of you have for one another is increasing.”
The people to whom Paul was writing were a crew as mixed and motley as the folks in The Lifeboat movie. Some were Jewish, others Gentile. There were some very rich and well-connected persons, while some were probably poor. But Paul doesn’t only praise them for having faith in God and love for each other. He praises the fact that their faith in God and their love for each other are growing. The growth part is indispensable, because we can’t stockpile faith and love like dry beans and expect them to stay ever the same in quantity and quality. Faith in God and love for each other are either growing or shrinking. There are no static alternatives to growing or decaying. Like Bob Dylan sang, “He who is not busy being born is busy dying.”
So take away the buildings, the trappings, the trimmings, the traditions from any church, and church is but that mixed and motley crew who have covenanted and committed to help each other grow in faith toward God and in love toward one another. For no one can grow either of these things alone; all of us need each other. Similarities in culture, politics, opinions and more are only optional to such growth. Sometimes the differences between us are what most propel our growth in faith toward God and our growth in love for each other.
Which brings me to four challenges that I’m issuing from this text, and not only because it’s the Sunday in which we have our church business meeting. The first is for our current members, those who hold some form of formal membership here at Zion Mennonite Church, myself included: What are we doing about our membership, and with our membership, to grow in faith and love for one another, and to help each other grow in faith and love? We made some big promises to each other when we joined, either by baptism, or by transfer of membership, or simple confession of faith. We said Yes to questions like, “As you willingly unite with this church, will you worship, serve, and share in its program; supporting it and its mission by your earnest prayers, regular attendance, loyal service and faithful stewardship, as God gives you strength?” and “Do you promise to live and share with us in the bonds of Christian fellowship, giving and receiving Christian love, sharing and bearing one another’s joy and pain?” Those questions are from the Mennonite Minister’s Manual. To which I will add, “And will you do so without regard to race, nationality, politics or political affiliation? Will you stand up with the fellow in the lifeboat with you, even if the world should say, pitch him or her overboard for reasons of politics, appearance, language and other identities?”
My second challenge is to those among us who are not yet members of Zion, but who are still beloved parts of our faith family. Being an official member or not has nothing to do with how much we love and appreciate you. We will be there for you in time of need. If you have surgery or lose a loved one, it’s not like our Good Cheer Committee would say, “Sorry, you only get one carnation, instead of the dozen roses that members get.” No, if you’ve come to know us here at Zion Mennonite Church and we’ve come to know you, you’re basically stuck with us, whether you share our membership, faith and mission or not. The main difference between membership and not is whether you can fully lend all your gifts in certain kinds of leadership, like the elder board, or church council, and give us your counsel in the form of voting. Even if you’re not a member, we value you, your presence, your gifts, your counsel and your wisdom.
If you’re not a member because you’re not sure you share all of Zion’s faith, mission and vision, that’s fair. I respect that. Thank you for respecting us and our mission and vision enough to be honest about that. But we’re still glad you’re here with us. If you do, however, share our faith, our vision and our mission, then what keeps you from taking that step of making a membership covenant with Zion’s current membership, so that nothing impedes the full exercise of your gifts in whatever capacity we discern is your calling? The spirit of this age says that covenants and commitments only tie us down and take more from us than they give. And since we all have been hurt by people not following through on their commitments, we may think we need to keep our options open and the escape hatches unlocked. But that’s not going to be helpful in the lifeboat we’re in, and the storm that’s blowing.
To all of us, members or not, I say, Yes, there are costs, inconveniences and headaches to any covenants and commitments. That’s why making them is scary. But we won’t know what the joys, the blessings and the benefits of any covenant commitment are until we are deep into them. The Baltimore Orioles’ shortstop and third baseman, Cal Ripken knew this. After he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for having played the greatest consecutive number of Major League games in the history of professional baseball, someone asked him, “What’s the secret of your success and longevity?” His reply: “I just kept showing up.” There’s something about living into our commitments, patiently, persistently, paying the price, putting in the time, and showing up some more, that brings out their joys, blessings and benefits, as well as the headaches and heartaches. So if you are in agreement with Zion’s faith, mission and vision, and are not in a membership covenant commitment with Zion, I invite you to talk with Jana and me about it.
My third challenge for everyone, member or not, is to think and pray about your place and participation in one of the smaller, short-term churches within Zion Mennonite Church, by which I mean, our small groups. Or if there is not currently a small group that meets your needs, or which meets at a time that works for you, is there one on your heart, taking shape in your thoughts and prayers, a study, or a support group which would help you address an area of need or interest, like parenting or grand-parenting, or homelessness or spiritual disciplines? Such groups help us to be more focused and intentional about helping each other grow in faith toward God and in love for one another. Again, if you want to join such a group, or start such a group, talk with Jana or me about that.
But here’s my fourth and final challenge, also for members and non-members alike: Zion’s members and ministries are making some very Christ-like commitments and engagements to the poor, the sojourner, the alien, the refugee, like with Habitat for Humanity, Bridging Cultures, and English as a Second Language classes, Jubilee Food Shelf, the Canby Pregnancy Center, and more. We are exploring hosting a refugee family and a partnership with Bible translation in a majority Muslim country. Even before the election results this week, I got the impression that we were doing things that could gain us disapproval from both sides of our country’s feverish partisan divide. If you’re feeling called to any such ministries, or are currently involved in them, then yes, count the cost. But thank God, our Anabaptist ancestors in the 16th Century did not hire public opinion pollsters and Madison Avenue market testers when they were discerning things like believers’ baptism, church as a voluntary association of believers, and conscientious objection to war. Neither should we.
So count the cost of growing in faith and in love together, in the lifeboat with the One who stills the storms and walks calmly on waves. But count also the benefits and the blessings. As for the blessings and the benefits, I bring us back to that movie, The Lifeboat, as boredom, despair, fear, suspicion, thirst and hunger are starting to set the passengers against one another. The lifeboat came with some survival equipment, like fishing line, hooks and sinkers. Kovacs, the “working class stiff,” knows how to fish. But they’ve long since eaten the last of the tinned beef or Spam that might have worked for bait. But then the high class, high society cosmopolitan woman takes off her expensive diamond jewelry and offers it Kovacs to put on the hook for lures. If he loses any, she’s got more. What’s it matter as long as they survive and don’t eat each other? With diamonds dancing and sparkling on the hook, Kovacs is soon pulling fresh fish over the side of the boat. And if you’re wondering how they cooked them, well, that high society lady has probably eaten sushi in her travels to Tokyo or Singapore, and Kovacs, well, he’s been through worse; he’s a survivor; he can do hard times.
Like that woman giving up her diamond earrings, and Kovacs knowing how to catch fish with them, we storm-tossed survivors in this lifeboat already have among us the gifts and talents and resources of God that will help us grow in faith toward God and love for one another.
Remember the question at the beginning of this message: Who would you pull into that last seat in the lifeboat with you? The person you loved most, or the person you needed most in order to survive? Think back to about a year and a half ago, when Ken Kauffman was leading worship, and at the beginning of the service, he said to us, “Look around yourselves at the other people here.” Then he asked us, “Do you love these people?” I’ve forgotten a lot of calls to worship, including ones I’ve done, but not that one. (So a belated thanks to you, Ken)
In the lifeboat that is the church of Jesus Christ, we don’t have to make the choice between sharing a bench with the people we love most, and who love us most, and the people who can best help us get home to our heavenly port. For one thing, there’s always room for more people in Jesus’ lifeboat.
What’s more: the people whom we are to love, and who are to love us, and the people who can best help us get home to our heavenly port, they are one and the same persons. So, look again at the people who share the lifeboat of Jesus’ church with you. The people at hand, here and now, whom we are called to love more and more, and who are called to love us more and more, are also the same people we most need in order to make it through the shipwrecks of the world. Because only a growing faith, and growing love will get us through.
So stick with the Captain who stills the storms and walks on the waves, stick with each other, and stick up for each other, however rough the storms of this life. Because we are all in the same boat.